Sunday, June 1, 2008

lessons learned (1-5)

In that message from futureme that I just wrote about, my past self asked me if I had learned from the struggles I've had with Graves' disease and the consequences of it. In my post, I wrote that I have. I throw around that idea a lot, referring to the ordeal as a "learning experience" to lots of people I talk to, but it's time to be specific. What exactly have I learned? I haven't tackled this because it's just too much, too vast. I will never be able to articulate all of it; it will never be complete. It can't be clearly quantified, but I nonetheless feel like it's time to compose a list. Here is the first installment.

1. I learned that the stigma associated with mental illness is still around and that it even affects people who know better. Educated people. Insightful and compassionate people. Clinical psychology majors, for goodness sake. I thought I understood that people with mood disorders like depression weren't to blame--that it wasn't their fault, that they needed help and shouldn't be ashamed of getting it. I thought I viewed mental illness the same way I viewed physical illness. I didn't think I judged or looked down on people with depression... but then I became one of them. And I denied it, and I hid from it, and I ran away from it, and I denied it some more, just for good measure. I thought, depression happens, but it can't happen to me! What on earth will people think?! Etc. I know this doesn't sound like a very hopeful or helpful thing to learn, but it is. Understanding my own bias has informed my understanding of this stigma in general, which will make me a better therapist on a few levels. This inside information, complete with messy emotions, will, I hope, help me to know better what I can do to help eliminate stigma, as well as how to relate to clients who are resistant to therapy (or medication) at first. I'll know how hard it was for them to show up and say, "I'm depressed," because I had to do it myself. I'll get it, because I was there once too. I'll be able to say "I understand" and mean it.

2. More generally, I learned what depression feels like. I already knew the DSM criteria, but now I get it. This first-hand understanding will help me to have a level of empathy with depressed people (clients or otherwise) that I wouldn't have had before. A few years ago, I wouldn't have a really hard time processing a statement like, "I can't make myself get out of bed and take a shower." I still have thoughts along the lines of "How can that be?" but I nonetheless know that it can be. Because it was.

3. My diagnosing skills have also been greatly informed by my personal experience. Most notably, I know the importance of a little criterion we like to call "rule out GMC." Practically every diagnosis has this criterion--a message to the diagnositician that if these symptoms you've checked off are the result of a physical illness, then you don't make this mental health diagnosis. The doctor I first went to didn't follow this rule. He wrote me a prescription for antidepressants before he even took my vitals. If the nurse hadn't taken my heart rate and blood pressure (and noticed that "big thing" on my neck," I would've suffered for a lot longer, because a general medical condition was the reason for my symptoms. "Rule out GMC" is usually an afterthought, both in the classroom and in the doctor's office, but it probably saved my life. In therapy, I will never treat someone for depression without strongly encouraging them (because, you know, coercion is kind of frowned upon by APA) to get their thyroid checked. Mark my words.

4. Along the same lines, I've learned a lot about the mind-body relationship, which plays a central role in psychopathology and psychotherapy. The book of Proverbs tells us, "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones"(17:22) and "A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones" (14:30). Physical health and mental health are inextricably linked. The affect each other bidirectionally. Though I have my hunches, it really is impossible to say which came first (my depression or my thyroid disease) , but the point is that each of them made the other worse. The two couldn't be separated, and they both had to be treated. My understanding of this connection will surely inform my work as a clinician.

5. Obviously, I've learned a lot about the thyroid and Graves' disease itself. This education has enabled me to help people with thyroid disease--to offer advice and information as well as encouragement. Just a few days ago, I got an email from a fellow Graves' patient who stumbled upon my blog. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to be a resource for her--and hopefully a source of hope, too. I hope to have more of these opportunities.

(more to come...)

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